One often hears postdocs complaining about being 'overworked, underpaid and underappreciated'. Although such complaints are prone to exaggeration, the unsatisfying plight of postdocs was affirmed in a report published in 2000 by the US National Academies (“Enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers”; www7.nationalacademies.org/postdoc/). The report highlighted concerns of the current postdoctoral training system and suggested ten action points that might improve the conditions of postdocs.
Since this report was issued, the 'postdoc problem' has received broad attention. It has been discussed at meetings and workshops, and commentaries have been published in several scientific journals. In addition, positive steps have been taken at various levels to address some of the concerns raised in the report. At the grass roots level, postdoc associations have been formed at many institutes in the US, Canada and Europe. To give voice at the national level, a National Postdoctoral Association has been established in the US to champion the needs of postdocs. Also several institutions have established offices to provide services to postdocs, and funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, have increased postdoctoral stipends. To assess the state of the current postdoctoral training system, Sigma Xi has conducted a large scale survey, the results of which are expected shortly.
Although the constructive activities described above may go some distance toward improving the quality of life of postdocs, one important facet of the postdoc problem—the quality of mentoring—remains an area that still requires significant effort to address. It has been said that true mentoring involves “taking a deep interest in a person's development as a scientist and a citizen of the scientific community” (S. Malcolm, at the National Academy of Sciences 2nd Convocation on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers). Thus, mentoring is about more than transferring scientific skills; it is also about providing a broader insight that can be crucial to future success. Not all postdoc-advisor relationships reach this level of involvement. Particularly in labs that have numerous postdocs, it is difficult to imagine how the principal investigators, who are often juggling many responsibilities in addition to research and teaching, can provide the individual support and guidance that will ease the transition of young scientists to an independent research career.
Certainly, establishing a type of infrastructure, such as an independent oversight committee, to periodically evaluate postdoc performance and to determine the need for additional support and guidance would be one way to ensure the quality of mentoring. Alternatively, postdocs should seek useful information from as many sources as possible. For example, Howard Hughes Medical Institute has published a lab management handbook with helpful advice to both postdocs and junior faculty (www.hhmi.org/grants/office/graduate/lab_book.html), and the Next Wave (http://nextwave.sciencemag.org) provides a discussion forum for the postdocs. Last but not least is to educate advanced PhD students that, when selecting a postdoctoral position, the decision should be based on more than just the scientific interest and the productivity of the principal investigator.
The effects of unskilled mentoring and direction are readily apparent. Facing today's tight job market, many postdocs have chosen to extend their fellowships or even pursue serial postdoctoral positions. Thus, these days it is not uncommon to meet someone in their seventh or eighth year of postdoctoral research. However, it is not clear that these 'superpostdocs' have enhanced their chances of landing an independent research job in academia. Such observations suggest that the current supply of postdocs may exceed demand of scientific research. Nevertheless, given the experience and skill of these advanced postdocs, it would be a waste of talent and training not to provide some type of career structure for them. Consequently, there have been recent discussions about how to retain this talent in science, which will require serious thought about balancing the supply and demand.
Given this prospect today's postdocs need to consider career options beyond traditional bench research. While it can be difficult to give up the goal after such a long training process and at a time so close to the home stretch, it should be emphasized that successful scientific training provides many skills that are highly desirable in other professions: independent and analytical thinking, the ability to frame a question and problem-solving. All it requires is the courage to reinvent oneself and to apply one's training in a different way.